The Land of The Long White Lie

3 December, 2020

Note that this blog post is very political and somewhat negative. If that's not your thing, feel free to ignore it; I'll be posting more lighthearted stuff in the future.

Many people look to today's New Zealand, especially under Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, as a beacon of progressiveness in an increasingly divided world. She stood with dignity as her country faced an earthquake, a white supremacist incursion, and a pandemic that nobody could have seen coming. A feminist icon, she carried a baby while continuing to serve as Prime Minster. She's an aspirational figure, a guidestone, for all New Zealanders, one that all young Kiwis look up to in awe. The country she leads is a veritable paradise: it provides free healthcare and great social services, and its idyllic landscape and environment shows how we can combat climate change.

Some of what I said above is true. And plenty of people seem to agree with such depictions.

7 Defining Characteristics Of Jacinda Ardern’s Leadership Style
In recent days, New Zealand’s prime minister Jacinda Ardern secured a historic election victory. Ardern’s party won the highest percentage of the vote in more than five decades, claiming 64 seats in parliament. The feat will allow Labour to govern the country alone (should Ardern choose to do so). What is it that makes Ardern such an exceptional leader?

Jacinda Ardern tipped to win Nobel Peace Prize despite competition from Thunberg, Trump
According to Joe Short from, Jacinda Ardern's handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and her inspirational leadership sees her a strong contender to take it out.

Jacinda Ardern prime minister of Australasia? If only it was that simple
The good and the great of Melbourne packed in to the town hall on Thursday evening to hear the New Zealand prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, speak on the topic of why good government matters. Since the tragic Christchurch mosque massacre, Ardern has come to be seen not just as one of the world’s youngest leaders of a nation, but also as one of the world’s great leaders.

Clearly, Jacinda Ardern Thought is very popular overseas. And though most New Zealanders like her as a person, many of us take a more nuanced view of things. There's a lot of problems with Jacinda, and a lot of problems with our country. We've far from the progressive paradise that some seem to think we are. To explain things, I'll have to go back in time a bit...

Birth of a Nation

On October 6, 1769, Captain James Cook became the first European to reach New Zealand soil. After two attempts at coming ashore, he got into an altercation with local Māori; leading to the naming of what's now known as Cape Kidnappers.1 Although many people celebrate this as the... birth of a nation,2 they are largely of the older, more pale-skinned demographic. New Zealand really started being a thing closer to 1841, after settlement by Europeans had already begun. Soon, these colonisers had a small problem, in that the native population... well, they refused to stop existing.

Around ~25% of Māori are estimated to have died in the first half of the 1800s. Conventional wisdom at the time was that the whole population would eventually disappear, but fortunately this prediction made using "superior" European science did not come to pass. Instead, those that did survive happened to get their land holdings stolen by white people for daring to rebel, or stolen by white people by de-communalising the land and giving it to the person most likely to sell. The effects of this are still visible: today, Māori are consistently treated worse in the criminal justice system,3 and only make up 16% of the national population. They are less likely to own a home, and more likely to fall below the poverty line.4

Meanwhile, things were going a bit better for the colonial class. New Zealand's progressive reputation comes largely from the welfare state established by avowed socialist Labour prime minister Michael Joseph Savage. Savage created the world's first social security program, nationalised the health system, improved living and working conditions, and introduced the forty-hour week. New Zealand under Savage's rule was transformed as a country, and to this day, he remains one of New Zealand's most popular prime ministers.

Nevertheless, the 1980s, the resulting economic order faced significant problems. It was perceived as many as over-regulated and inflexible, reliant on exclusive trade agreements with Britain, and heavily constrictive to the foreign exchange of goods and services. When Labour entered power in 1984,5 new finance minister Roger Douglas swiftly executed extreme reform, including sharp taxation cuts on high earners and implementation of a sales tax (GST). State-owned assets were sold to the highest bidder, and charges were added to university education and (to a minor extent) healthcare. Unions were damaged immensely and irreparably.

The results of these free-market6 policies were devastating:7 growth stagnated, foreign debt quadrupled, and the newly created money made its way into the hands of a few oligopolists. Poverty rates grew by a third, and child poverty by 100%. Living standards declined for the poor, and their health decreased. Youth suicide levels sharply rose, as systems were left unable to cope.8 Douglas was eventually fired after trying to install a flat tax rate; dismayed, he left Labour to found the libertarian ACT party.

Waking from the Kiwi Dream

Today, the legacy of "Rogernomics" continues to shape New Zealand. The country is ranked as having some of the most "economic freedom" by think tanks.9 This has had devastating effects - the income of the top 10% of Kiwis has grown by almost 50%, while the poorest have only gained around 10% more.10 In 2011, workers had a share of income lower than all in the OECD but Mexico, Slovakia, Luxembourg, and Turkey. According to one expert:

New Zealand's income gaps have now widened to such an extent that they have created something of a crisis - not in the sense of a natural disaster that strikes in an instant, but a gradual shift that builds until it reaches a tipping point.

Kiwis boast the highest youth suicide rate in the developed world,8 and one of the highest family violence rates in the OECD.11 Business is still controlled by a select few. Some workers are denied public holidays and prohibited from striking.12 This dire situation has worsened the already dismal state of young Māori; causing "cultural devastation" according to an educationalist. According to the OECD, New Zealand is the worst country in the world regarding increasing inequality.13 Damningly, they state that more conscientious economic policy would have not only reduced inequality, but increased growth.

The deregulation has also affected quality of housing; 42,000 houses and over 50 schools suffer from leaks and poor air quality due to poor construction and materials,14 causing over one thousand Kiwis to die every winter.15 Those that manage to survive are plunged further into poverty even further due to additional heating and maintenance costs. According to a journalist:16

The idea that if you turn the business of government and industry to the private sector and get government out of the way, we'll end up in a... paradise where everything will be better quality and less expensive. Of course that didn’t happen, especially not in the building industry.

Although new standards have been introduced, they are still inadequate according to experts, and do not fix under-qualified construction practices. While a 2019 bill finally introduced mandatory insulation and heatings standards for landlords,17 the former is only required in the ceiling and floors, despite many areas having high winds and cold temperatures.18 Most New Zealanders don't complain about this since they've lucky to live in a house at all.

In the beleaguered Northland region, some have resorted to building huts in local forests.19 Others live in their cars. Like many places in the world, New Zealand suffers from an immense housing crisis; but to a greater degree than most. Out of all OECD countries, New Zealand has had the largest housing price increase every year since 1990,20 and prices consistently grow faster than incomes.21 In 2020, housing prices have increased more in a year than people have earned,22 with the average rate of growth being over 18%.23 Despite the existence of over 30,000 empty houses in the country's largest city alone,24 the average house sells for over one million dollars there.25 Since the country has no land or capital gains tax, owners are encouraged to hold onto property until it appreciates in value, and they frequently do. Empty lots are not an uncommon sight. Little political impetus exists for real solutions to the crisis, as just 8% of MPs don't own a home, as compared to 63% on average.26 Some own more than 10.

Being a common destination for tourists, New Zealand likes to market itself as "100% Pure". This is far from the truth. 60% of monitored rivers are unsafe to swim in, largely due to the country's dairy industry.27 According to the New Zealand Geographic:28

We’re one of the world’s greatest pesticide sprayers, and the 13th most enthusiastic fertiliser. We have more endangered species (proportionally) than anyone else. We boast the fastest known extermination in the world of an order of large animals (nine species of moa). Ninety per cent of our wetlands are gone.

And despite the Lord of the Rings‐esque vistas in every tourism brochure and poster, New Zealand is only 32% forested. According to a PLoS One study, it's the 18th worst country in the world regarding protection of its natural environment.29 Large swathes of countryside have been transformed due to man's inexorable desire to bend the earth to his will: complex irrigation systems, rivers full of sludge, and cancerous groundwater deposits.30 Dissenters like scientist Dr. Mike Joy, who tried to bring the country's dairy industry to attention, are slammed by powerful farming interests and branded "un-Kiwi".

Unfortunately, this is a common response to anyone who tries to bring my country's problems to attention. Despite our progressive reputation, abortion was only legalised in 2019, and euthanasia in 2020. New Zealand's government suffers from a pervasive slothfulness, one no better exemplified by the local slang "she'll be right".

Killing with Kindness

It is only natural, then, that Jacinda Ardern became the leader of the country. She's definitely a popular leader - but a few voices dissent:

The cruel violence of ‘kindness’ and ‘unity’
The night of New Zealand’s general election was bittersweet. Like many others, I was happy to see the National Party’s ever-increasing incompetence and unapologetic racism met with the defeat they deserved.

But in watching the Prime Minister deliver her victory speech, I couldn’t help but feel my happiness quickly fade as she stated her new Government’s focus for the next three years, proclaiming: “We will not take your support for granted and I can promise you we will be a party which governs for every New Zealander.”

On the surface, there’s nothing wrong with these words - they are encouraging and warm, and expertly delivered with the Prime Minister’s signature calm and reassuring voice that we have become almost dependent on in a year defined by an ongoing global pandemic.

However, to those of us with the most vulnerable in Aotearoa on our minds, we knew that this message of promising governing for “every New Zealander” was a thinly veiled assurance to the former, recently swayed National Party voters that the new Government had their back. It felt almost like a nudge and a wink to let them know that our deeply unequal normal was to continue.

I highly recommend checking out the remainder of Mr. Asofo's article. It succinctly illustrates exactly the problem with Jacinda. I'm not suggesting that she's some sort of incorrigible menace - I'm sure she's a nice enough person, as the countless stories about her suggest - just that she does not have the requisite courage to be a true leader in these troubling times. Being a leader is more than talking about kindness and delivering for the cameras - it's about abating the fears in the hearts of many Kiwis. They go home to not enough food. They go to work and don't receive enough pay. Their material conditions are getting demonstrably worse every waking hour.

When Ardern campaigned in 2017, she was chosen by many to deliver transformative change. These aren't my words - they've hers.31 But by all accounts, she hasn't. Although her coalition government with the populist New Zealand First party limited her options significantly, she and the party's leader Winston Peters still shared significant ground. Her "Year of Delivery" - already a warning sign when thinking about implications for the previous - didn't deliver.32 The KiwiBuild project was an abject failure: 1,000 houses were promised, but only 300 were built; and she refused to implement the policies that the public had voted her in on. Her climate change policies were less progressive than Boris Johnson's.

By 2020, voters had decided that they had enough, with National consistently polling higher than Labour.33 This trend only abated after National leader Simon Bridges criticised Ardern's (to be fair, quite good) COVID-19 response, eventually resulting in his ousting, and National changing leaders twice in an election year. Eventually, Ardern went up against Judith Collins.34 Disliked by many even within caucus for her brash and uncompromising attitude, she was fired by previous PM John Key for corruption. Collins presided over further polling losses, presumably not helped by quotes like these:

Does that have anything to do with me? Am I the minister of wetlands? Go and find someone who actually cares about this, because I don't... I don't like wetlands – they're swamps.35

I am a woman of colour - the colour white.36

[On climate change] I'm personally not adding to it - I only had one [child]37

Although many media outlets touted Ardern's eventual win as a success for progressive politics, it could just as accurately be attributed to National's failure to run a competent campaign.38 In fact, this conclusion arguably makes the most sense, given her polling before COVID-19. And although she comfortably sits in the Prime Minister's chair today, given the constantly rising inequalities in New Zealand, it is hopefully only a matter of time before the people tire of her "kindness politics".

New Zealand is oft seen as a paradise compared to the turmoil exemplified by other nations. But it's merely a false hope; a mirage. It's pointed to as an example of how our current systems can work at their best. But it actually proves how these systems have failed us. Humanity is facing growing inequality and a changing climate. And when you have a massive problem arise, you don't make a few fixes, you take drastic action. When a car comes towards you, you don't freeze like a deer in the headlights, you get the hell out of the way. When your neighbourhood faces a tsunami, you don't close the curtains, you run for the goddamn hills.

When our carpenter Samuel Parnell got the first eight-hour day in the world, he didn't get it at the ballot box or negotiate - he stood on his own two feet and demanded it.39 When your country faces injustice, you don't follow the cues of New Zealand or elect a Jacinda Ardern. You try to gain sweeping change with tools you can rely on.

Posted in Politics